Thursday, September 21, 2006
Public Libraries May Ban Religious Worship in Meeting Rooms—C.A.
By a MetNews Staff Writer
Public libraries which open their meeting rooms to private groups can prohibit use of the rooms for religious worship, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled yesterday.
The court reversed U.S. District Judge Jeffrey S. White of the Northern District of California, who granted a preliminary injunction prohibiting Contra Costa County from enforcing such a ban in its public libraries.
Judge Richard A. Paez, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said:
“[T]he County’s decision to exclude . . . religious worship services from the meeting room is reasonable in light of the library policy so that the . . . [library] is not transformed into an occasional house of worship.”
The county makes its public library meeting rooms available to the public during library hours for “educational, cultural and community related meetings, programs and activities.” The county prohibits use of the rooms for “religious services.”
Faith Center Church Evangelistic Ministries is a non-profit religious corporation led by Pastor Hattie Mae Hopkins. Hopkins testified that she believes there are many individuals who need to hear about the gospel of Jesus Christ but who may never enter a traditional church building. To reach those individuals, Hopkins holds meetings and worship services in non-church buildings under the auspices of Faith Center.
Faith Center applied for and was granted permission to use a meeting room at Antioch Library. A flyer advertising the event divided the day’s activities into a morning “Wordshop” and an afternoon “Praise and Worship” service with a sermon by Hopkins.
Toward the end of the afternoon service, library staff informed Faith Center representatives that they were not permitted to use the meeting room for religious activities. The library subsequently rescinded its permission for Faith Center to use the room at a future date.
Faith Center sued to enjoin the county from excluding Faith Center’s proposed religious meetings, asserting that the county’s policy barring religious services constitutes viewpoint discrimination in violation of the First Amendment.
In granting the preliminary injunction, White reasoned that religious worship is speech protected by the First Amendment, religious worship cannot be distinguished from other forms of religious speech, and the exclusion of religious worship from otherwise permissible speech of a religious nature constitutes viewpoint discrimination.
On appeal, the Ninth Circuit reasoned that the meeting rooms are limited public forums—so that restrictions governing their access are permitted so long as they are viewpoint neutral and reasonable in light of the purpose served by the rooms—because of the nature of libraries and because the county requires prior permission for access to the meeting rooms, charges a fee, and excludes schools from using the rooms “for instructional purposes as a regular part of the curriculum” and organizations who wish to engage in “religious services.”
Finding that the restrictions against religious services were permissible subject matter restrictions and not impermissible viewpoint restrictions, Paez said:
“Religious worship . . . is not a viewpoint but a category of discussion within which many different religious perspectives abound. . . . [A] blanket exclusion of religious worship services from the forum is one based on the content of speech.”
Paez found the religious use restriction to be reasonable. Quoting prior case law, he said:
“To conclude that the County’s exclusion of religious worship services from its government buildings is unreasonable would result in the ‘remarkable proposition that any public [building] opened for civic meetings must be opened for use as a church, synagogue, or mosque.’”
Faith Center argued that its religious worship cannot be distinguished from other religious speech—such as singing, sharing testimonials, and prayer in the context of discussing how to communicate with God—that is permitted in the library, and to attempt a judicially enforceable distinction would entangle the government with religion in a manner forbidden by the Establishment Clause. But Paez said the court didn’t need to distinguish worship from allowed religious speech because that distinction “was already made by Faith Center itself when it separated its afternoon religious worship service from its morning activities.”
In a concurring opinion, Senior U.S. District Judge Lawrence K. Karlton of the Eastern District of California, sitting by designation, said the case should be a “simple” one that “asks whether the county can be forced to subsidize a religious organization’s prayer meetings by requiring it to provide the religious organization with a free place to worship.”
The answer is obvious, he said. “A quick reading of the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States should answer the question,” he commented.
But Karlton said that Paez had to reach a “laborious result” because of Supreme Court precedent that fails “to accept the plain meaning of the First Amendment.”
The judge explained:
“The purported inability of the High Court to adhere to the distinction embodied in the First Amendment leads it to conclude that the issues tendered by cases, such as the one at bar, implicate viewpoint discrimination under the free speech provisions of the First Amendment. They simply do not. As the First Amendment notes, religious speech is categorically different than secular speech and is subject to analysis under the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause without regard to the jurisprudence of free speech.”
The judge added:
“[I]t is simply beyond cavil that the instant case does not present a close question. Appellees have been completely candid in acknowledging that the purpose of the meetings they proposed to hold on public property is ‘Prayer, Praise and Worship Open to [the] Public, Purpose to Teach and Encourage Salvation thru Jesus Christ and Build Up Commun[ity].’ To assert an inability to conclude that purpose is religious in every sense, is to engage in the kind of sophistry that gives the law a bad name.”
But Judge Richard C. Tallman, in his dissenting opinion, said:
“The ‘Religious Use’ exclusion is impermissible viewpoint discrimination because Contra Costa County . . . opened its public meeting room at the Antioch Library to the community in order ‘to encourage [its use] for educational, cultural and community related meetings, programs and activities.’ Notwithstanding the broad and inclusive policy it approved, the County has unlawfully excluded certain members of the community from engaging in activities that fall squarely within the policy’s scope by examining the way an applicant’s viewpoints are expressed. Political organizations like the local Democratic Party are admitted. Religious groups are not.”
“The County draws an arbitrary line in the sand, arguing that it has the right to decide what constitutes a religious service while failing to set forth specific guidelines defining the term.”
Tallman also disagreed with the majority’s finding that the county and the court need to decide where the line falls between religious worship and protected religious speech because Faith Center made the distinction itself, saying:
“[T]his flawed analysis blithely ignores other similarly situated religious groups that may not make such a nice admission to the County in their applications to use the room.”
The case is Faith Center Church Evangilistic Ministries v. Glover, 05-16132.
Copyright 2006, Metropolitan News Company